GLC Logo
Homepage  |   About Us  |   Historians  |   Classroom  |   Events  |        

David Brion Davis

The Problem of Slavery

Introduction to Oxford Press' An Historical Guide to World Slavery, ed. Drescher and Engerman.

As even Aristotle acknowledged, chattel slavery is different from other varieties of servitude. More than thirteen centuries before Aristotle, the Hammurabi Code in Babylonia defined a concept of chattel slavery that served as a way of classifying the lowliest and most dependent workers in society. Among the salient features of this legal and philosophical status was the fact that once they were owned, slaves could be sold or inherited; the same features would reappear through the ages in scores of cultures.

In the ancient Near East, as in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the pre-conquest Americas, various forms of slavery and servitude almost certainly emerged long before they were systematized by laws or legal codes. Such laws and codes, however, encouraged the wielders of power to make the actual condition of servitude conform as much as possible to a model of hereditary dishonor and powerlessness—much as wielders of power promoted the opposite ideal model of hereditary kingship.

As historians have carefully examined specific slave systems, they have often expressed surprise over the privileges and even freedom enjoyed by certain individual slaves. In ancient Babylonia and Rome, as in the medieval Islamic world and sub-Saharan Africa, slaves served as soldiers, business agents, and high administrators. In seventeenth-century Virginia, a slave named Francis Payne harvested enough tobacco to buy his owner two white indentured servants and then purchase freedom for himself, his wife, and his children; Payne later married a white woman and sued a white planter. In the interior of Britain's Cape Colony in southwestern Africa, black slave herdsmen in the 1820s were allowed to tend herds of livestock in regions so remote that they would travel many weeks without supervision or even sighting a white figure of authority.

In the 1850s, an American slave named Simon Gray served as the captain of a flatboat on the Mississippi River, supervising and paying wages to a crew that included white men. Entrusted with large sums of money for business purposes, Gray carried firearms, drew a regular salary, rented a house where his family lived in privacy, and took a vacation to Hot Springs, Arkansas, when his health declined. Some decades earlier, a South Carolina slave named April Ellison won his freedom after learning how to build and repair cotton gins. After changing his first name to William, buying the freedom of his wife and daughter, and winning a legal suit against a white man who had failed to pay a debt, Ellison became a wealthy planter and owner of sixty-three slaves, a statistic that placed him by 1860 among the upper 3 percent of the slave holders in South Carolina.

Such highly exceptional examples point to the often-forgotten fact that, regardless of law or theory, a slave's actual status or condition could vary along a broad spectrum of rights, powers, and protections that would include, as suggested by Moses Finley (1964, pp. 247-248), claims to property or power over things; power over one's own or others' labor and movement; power to punish or be exempt from punishment; privileges or liabilities within the judicial process; rights and privileges associated with the family; privileges of social mobility; and privileges and duties in religious, political, and military spheres.

Although most slaves in human history no doubt gravitated toward the bottom of such a scale, the spectrum of slave conditions clearly overlaps a larger spectrum that includes all varieties of oppression and powerlessness. Thus some forms of contract labor, though technically free, would score lower on the larger spectrum than many systems of conventional bondage. One thinks, for example, of the Chinese "coolies" who were transported in the mid-nineteenth century across the Pacific to the coast of Peru, where they died in appalling numbers from the lethal effects of mining and shoveling seabird excrement for the world's fertilizer market.

The same point applies to much convict labor, which as "involuntary servitude" is specifically legitimated by the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as an exception to its national abolition of slavery. If the twentieth century witnessed the slow eradication of most chattel slavery in Africa, Asia, and the Mideast, it also set new records for cruelty and atrocity as tens of millions of men, women, and children were subjected to state servitude by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, communist China, and smaller totalitarian nations. Even in the southern United States, for instance at the notorious Parchman Farm in Mississippi, those sentenced to prison—mostly African Americans, and many of them convicted unjustly or for very minor crimes—were subjected to chain gangs and other forms of penal servitude that approximated the Soviet and Chinese gulags. In contrast to traditional chattel slaves, who usually represented a valuable investment, these political or ethnic prisoners were by definition expendable. As late as the 1990s, testimony from former political prisoners in China has proved once again how torture, constant surveillance, and a near-starvation diet can transform human behavior. Students of slavery should at least be aware that strong-minded men and women admit that in the Chinese camps they fawningly tried to ingratiate themselves with guards, stole food from one another, informed on friends, and finally became convinced that it was their own fault that they were dying from starvation.

The difficulties of appraising or ranking slave systems have been underscored by Orlando Patterson's great comparative study, Slavery and Social Death. In some primitive societies, such as the Tupinamba of Brazil, slaves were spared from heavy labor but were destined to be eaten, like sacrificial animals, following a ceremonial killing. Some societies that achieved high rates of manumission by allowing slaves to purchase their freedom were extraordinarily brutal and oppressive in other ways, such as sanctioning torture and mass executions. We learn that impressive-sounding laws to protect slaves were seldom enforced. As Jean Bodin pointed out in the sixteenth century, only an absolutist state could override the antithetical or competitive authority of slaveholders. Yet this principle of slave holder autonomy could also mean that slaveholders might strongly encourage slave marriages and slave families, as in the nineteenth-century U.S. South, even though such marriages had no legal standing.

While Patterson has been especially interested in pre-modern slavery and in the social and psychological functions of "natal alienation" and "generalized dishonor," we should remember that the central quality of most forms of slavery has been defined by the nature of the work performed. For example, the slave might have been cutting sugar cane or sweating in the boiler room of a sugar mill in the tropical West Indies, or serving as a sex object in a Persian harem, or wearing fine linens and driving rich white people in a coach in Virginia, or performing as an acrobat, dancer, soldier, doctor, or bureaucrat in Rome.

Nevertheless, when we think of highly privileged slaves—the wealthy farm agent in Babylon, the Greek poet or teacher in Rome, the black silversmith, musician, or boat captain in the American South—we must also remember another crucial point. Being slaves, they could at any moment be stripped of their privileges and property. They could be quickly sold, whipped, or sometimes even killed at the whim of an owner. All slave systems shared this radical uncertainty and unpredictability. Even the Mamluk army officer or powerful eunuch who issued orders in the sultan's name could not summon the aid of a supportive family, clan, or lineage. Whatever rights or privileges a slave might have gained could be taken in a flash, leaving an isolated man or woman as naked as a beast at an auction. This vulnerability, this sense of being removed from the increments and coherence of historical time, may be the essence of dehumanization.

Although historians have long recognized dehumanization as a central aspect of slavery, they have failed to explore the bestializing aspects of dehumanization, despite the significant clue Aristotle provided when he called the ox "the poor man's slave." Drawing on the historically ubiquitous comparisons of slaves with domestic animals, Karl Jacoby has argued convincingly that the domestication of sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, horses, and other animals during the Neolithic Revolution served as a model for enslaving humans. Whether used for food, clothing, transport, or heavy labor, these social animals underwent an evolutionary process of neoteny, or progressive "juvenilization." That is, they became more submissive than their wild counterparts, less fearful of strangers, and less aggressive (signified morphologically by a shortening of the jawbone and a decrease in size of the teeth).

Far from being fortuitous, these changes in anatomy and behavior were closely geared to human needs, especially in farming. To control such beasts, humans devised collars, chains, prods, whips, and branding irons. They also castrated males and subjected animals to specific breeding patterns. More positive incentives arose from a kind of paternalism as humans replaced the dominant animal that had exercised some control over the membership and movements of a social group. And as Jacoby astutely observes, the same means of control were eventually applied to human captives. The objectives of well-planned raids to steal the stock and grain wealth a community had saved from a year of labor might also involve some indiscriminate raping and the kidnapping of a few dozen workers.

No doubt the archetypal slave, as Gerda Lerner has maintained, was a woman. In patriarchal societies, women were treated like domesticated or pet-like animals in order to ensure their dependency and appearance of inferiority. Women not only worked in the fields but also reproduced, augmenting the size and wealth of tribes and lineages. In the Hebrew Bible, as in Homer and other early sources, male captives were typically killed on the spot; otherwise they might have escaped or risen in revolt. Women, one gathers, were customarily raped and then enslaved as concubines. With the rise of great urban and agricultural states, however, the need for servants and labor for public works coincided with improved techniques for controlling male prisoners, whose inability to understand their captors' language might have made them seem more like animals than men. As the laws governing chattel property evolved in the earliest civilizations, it was almost universally agreed that a slave, like an animal, could be bought, sold, traded, leased, mortgaged, bequeathed, presented as a gift, pledged for a debt, included in a dowry, or seized in a bankruptcy. These vulnerabilities applied even to the most privileged slaves in Babylonia and other ancient civilizations; for the Western world they were eventually codified in Roman law.

Despite the long attempts to equate human captives with domestic animals—the first African slaves shipped to Lisbon in the mid-1400s were stripped naked and marketed and priced exactly like livestock—slaves were fortunately never held long enough in distinctive, endogamous groups to undergo evolutionary neoteny. Looking back at history from the perspective of modern science, we can be confident that no group of slaves remained genetically distinct over the immense period of time required for significant hereditary change. Nonetheless, neoteny was clearly the goal of many slaveholders, despite their lack of any scientific understanding of how domestication had changed the nature and behavior of tame animals.

In ancient Mesopotamia slaves were not only named and branded as if they were domestic animals, but were actually priced according to their equivalent in cows, horses, pigs, and chickens. And as Orlando Patterson has pointed out, the key to the "Sambo" stereotype of the typical slave, "an ideological imperative of all systems of slavery," is the total absence of "any hint of manhood." Patterson quotes the famous description by the historian Stanley Elkins (1959, p. 82): "Sambo, the typical plantation slave, was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; his behavior was full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with childish exaggeration. His relationship with his master was one of utter dependence and childlike attachment: it was indeed this childlike quality that was the very key to his being."

What needs to be added is that this stereotype describes precisely what a human male slave would be like if slaves had been subjected to neoteny, the same process that domesticated tame animals. While ancient Greeks identified similar slavelike traits with "barbarians," and the stereotype was much later associated with so-called Slays—the root of the word slave in Western European languages—it was only in the fifteenth century, when slavery increasingly became linked with various peoples from sub-Saharan Africa, that the slave stereotype began to acquire racist connotations. As slavery in the Western world became more and more limited to black Africans, this arbitrarily defined "race" took on all the qualities, in the eyes of many white people, of the infantilized and animalized slave.

Because humans have always had a remarkable ability to imagine states of perfection, they also succeeded at an early stage in imagining a perfect form of subordination. Plato compared the slave to the human body, the master to the body's rational soul. Slaves incarnated the irrationality and chaos of the material universe, as distinct from the masterlike Demiurge. There was thus a cosmic justification behind Aristotle's dictum that "from the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule." Aristotle's ideal of the natural slave, which would help shape virtually all subsequent pro-slavery thought, also in effect pictured what a human being would be like if "tamed" and disciplined by neoteny.

Aristotle began by stressing the parallel between slaves and domesticated beasts:

Tame animals are naturally better than wild animals, yet for all tame animals there is an advantage in being under human control, as this secures their survival. And as regards the relationship between male and female, the former is naturally superior, the latter inferior, the male rules and the female is subject. By analogy, the same must necessarily apply to mankind as a whole. Therefore all men who differ from one another by as much as the soul differs from the body or a man from a wild beast (and that is the state of those who work by using their bodies, and for whom that is the best they can do)—these people are slaves by nature, and it is better for them to be subject to this kind of control, as it is better for the other creatures I have mentioned.

Aristotle then proceeded to distinguish the natural slave as having a different body and soul:

For a man who is able to belong to another person is by nature a slave (for that is why he belongs to someone else), as is a man who participates in reason only in far as to realize that it exists, but not so far as to have it himself—other animals do not recognize reason, but follow their passions. The way we use slaves isn't very different: assistance regarding the necessities of life is provided by both groups, by slaves and by domestic animals. Nature must therefore have intended to make the bodies of free men and of slaves different also; slaves' bodies strong for the services they have to do, men upright and not much use for that kind of work, but instead useful for community life.

Aristotle did recognize that on occasion "slaves can have the bodies of free men, free men only the souls and not the bodies of free men." Even more troubling was the fact that some people "of the most respected family" sometimes became slaves "simply because they happened to be captured and sold." Yet such instances of injustice could not weaken Aristotle's concluding conviction that "it is clear that certain people who are free and certain people who are slaves by nature, and it is both to their advantage, and just, for them to be slaves."

This tactic of animalization may well be universal; enslavement is simply its most extreme and institutionalized manifestation. Yet, as Aristotle noted, the slave was not totally dehumanized or seen as only an animal or nothing but an animal. Various Greek philosophers, especially the Cynics and Stoics, saw a fundamental contradiction in trying to reduce any human being to such a petlike or animal status. "It would be absurd," Diogenes of Sinope reportedly said, when his own slave had run away, "if Manes [the slave] can live without Diogenes, but Diogenes cannot get on without Manes." When pirates captured Diogenes and took him to a slave market in Crete, he pointed to a spectator wearing rich purple robes, and said, "Sell me to this man; he needs a master." Externally, according to the Stoics, the servant might be the instrument of his master's will, but internally, in his own self-consciousness, he remained a free soul.

In other words, the master's identity depended on having a slave who recognized him as master, and this in turn required an independent consciousness. Contrary to Aristotle and in contrast to the relationship between a man and pet dog, the roles of master and slave could be reversed: Diogenes could become the slave and Manes, who even as a slave might have had a freer soul and been less enslaved to his passions, could become the master.

This is the basic "problem of slavery," which arises from the irreducible humanness of the slave. Although slaves were supposed be treated in many respects like dogs, horses, or oxen, as reflected in all the laws that defined slaves as chattel, the same laws recognized that throughout history slaves have run away, outwitted their masters, rebelled, murdered, raped, stolen, divulged plots for insurrection, and helped protect the state from external danger. No masters or lawmakers, whether in ancient Rome, medieval Tuscany, or seventeenth-century Brazil, could forget that the obsequious servant might also be a "domestic enemy" bent on theft, poisoning, or arson. Throughout history it has been said that slaves, if occasionally as loyal and faithful as good dogs, were for the most part lazy, irresponsible, cunning, rebellious, untrustworthy, and sexually promiscuous. This central contradiction was underscored in Roman law (the Code of Justinian), which ruled that slavery was the single institution contrary to the law of nature but sanctioned by law of nations. That is to say, slavery would not be permitted in an ideal world of perfect justice, but it was simply a fact of life that symbolized the compromises that must be made in the sinful world of reality. This was the official view of Christian churches from the late Roman Empire to the eighteenth century.

The institution of slavery, then, has always given rise to conflict, fear, and accommodation. The settlement of the New World magnified these liabilities, because the slaves now came from an alien and unfamiliar culture; they often outnumbered their European rulers; and many colonial settlements were vulnerable to military attack or close to wilderness areas that offered easy refuge. Accordingly, the introduction of black slavery to the Americas brought spasmodic cries of warning, anxiety, and racial repugnance; however, the grandiose visions of New World wealth—once the Spanish had plundered the Aztecs and Incas—seemed always to require slave labor. Largely because many experiments at enslaving Indians failed, African slaves became an intrinsic part of the American experience.

From the Spanish and Portuguese to the English, Dutch, and French, colonizers turned to the purchase of slaves in Africa as the cheapest and most expedient labor supply to meet the immediate demands of mining and tropical agriculture. The institution took on a variety of forms as a result of European cultural differences, the character of the work performed, and a host of other variables. Anglo-American slavery was not unique in animalizing human beings, or in defining the bondsman as chattel property endowed with elements of human personality. In the mid-eighteenth century, when black slaves could be found in all regions from French Canada to Chile, there was nothing unprecedented about New World chattel slavery, even the enslavement of one ethnic group by another. What was unprecedented by the 1760s and early 1770s was the emergence of a widespread conviction that New World slavery symbolized all the forces that threatened the true destiny of the human race.

This eruption of anti-slavery thought cannot be explained by economic interest. The Atlantic slave system, far from being in decay, had never appeared so prosperous, so secure, or so full of promise. The first groups to denounce the principle of slavery, and all that it implied, were the perfectionist and millennialist Christian sects who sought to live their lives free from sin. In essence, their ideal involved a form of mutual love and recognition that precluded treating men as objects or animals, even as objects with souls. The sectarian groups that emerged in the English civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century looked for a form of authentic service, or selflessness, that could not be used as a lever for exploitation. Because they strove to realize a mode of interpersonal life that was the precise antithesis of chattel slavery, they threatened the existing social order and were either annihilated or reduced to spiritualistic withdrawal.

The notable exception was the Society of Friends, which early found the means of compromise and thus of survival. The Quakers not only contained and stabilized their quest for a purified life but also institutionalized methods for bearing witness to their faith. In other words, the Quakers achieved a dynamic balance between the impulse to perfection and the "reality principle." They also acquired considerable economic and political power, and they were the only sect to become deeply involved with the Atlantic slave system. By the early eighteenth century there were Quaker planters in the West Indies and Quaker slave merchants in London, Philadelphia, and Newport, Rhode Island. Partly because of the Friends' testimony against war, slaveholding occasioned moral tensions that were less common among other denominations. For social critics within the sect, the wealthy masters and slave-trading merchants presented a flagrant symbol of worldly compromise and an ideal target for attack. For a variety of reasons, the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) brought a spiritual crisis for the Society of Friends, resulting in much soul-searching, attempts at self-purification, and a final commitment to disengage themselves collectively from the Atlantic slave system.

The Quakers' growing anguish coincided with other reformist developments in Western culture, particularly the culture of British Protestantism. First, the rise of secular social philosophy necessitated a redefinition of the place of human bondage in the rational order of being. Because John Locke celebrated the importance of natural liberty, he had to place slavery outside the social compact, which was designed to protect man's inalienable rights. Locke thus imagined slavery as "the state of War continued, between a lawful Conqueror, and a Captive." Even by the 1730s, such arguments were beginning to appear absurd to a generation of English and French writers who had learned from Locke and others to take an irreverent view of past authority and to subject all questions to the test of reason. It was Montesquieu, more than any other thinker, who put the subject of black slavery on the agenda of the European Enlightenment. He weighed the institution against the general laws or principles that promoted human happiness, and he encouraged the imaginative experiment of a reversal of roles between masters and slaves in a world turned upside down. By the 1760s, the anti-slavery arguments of Montesquieu and Francis Hutcheson were being repeated, developed, and propagated by the intellectuals of the enlightened world. John Locke, the great enemy of all absolute and arbitrary power, was the last major philosopher to seek a justification for absolute and perpetual slavery.

A second and closely related transformation was the popularization of an ethic of benevolence, personified in the "man of feeling." The insistence on humanity's inner goodness, identified with the power of sympathy, became part of a gradual secularizing tendency in British Protestantism. Ultimately this liberal spirit led in two directions, described respectively by the titles of Adam Smith's two books: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Smith's theories of sympathetic benevolence and individual enterprise both condemned slavery as an intolerable obstacle to human progress. The man of sensibility needed to objectify his virtue by relieving the sufferings of innocent victims. The economic man required a social order that allowed and morally vindicated the free play of individual self-interest. By definition, the slave was both innocent and a victim, because he could not be held responsible for his own condition. The African's enslavement, unlike the legitimate restraints of society, seemed wholly undeserved. He represented innocent nature and hence corresponded, psychologically, to the natural and spontaneous impulses of the man of feeling. Accordingly, the key to progress lay in the controlled emancipation of innocent nature as found both in the objective slave and in the subjective affections of the reformer. The slave would be lifted to a level of independent action and social obligation. The reformer would be assured of the beneficence of his own self-interest by merging himself in a transcendent cause. These results, at least, were the expectation of the philanthropists who increasingly transformed the quest for salvation from a sinful world into a mission to cleanse the world of sin.

By the eve of the American Revolution there was a remarkable convergence of cultural and intellectual developments that at once undercut traditional rationalizations for slavery and offered new modes of sensibility for identifying with its victims. Thus the African's cultural difference acquired a positive image at the hands of eighteenth-century primitivists and evangelical Christians, such as John Wesley, who searched through travel accounts and descriptions of exotic lands for examples of humanity's inherent virtue and creativity. In some ways the "noble savage" was little more than a literary convention that conflated the Iroquois and South Sea Islander with sable Venuses and tear-bedewed daughters of "injur'd Afric." The convention did, however, modify Europe's arrogant ethnocentrism and provide for at least a momentary ambivalence toward the human costs of modern civilization. It also tended to counteract the many fears and prejudices that had long cut the African off from the normal mechanisms of sympathy and identification. Ultimately, literary primitivism was no match for the pseudoscientific racism that drew on the Enlightenment and reduced the African to a "link" or even separate species between man and the ape. But for many Europeans, as diverse as John Wesley and the Abbé Raynal, the African was not a human animal but an innocent child of nature whose enslavement in America betrayed the very notion of the New World as a land of natural innocence and new hope for mankind. By the early 1770s, such writers portrayed the black slave as a man of natural virtue and sensitivity who was at once oppressed by the worst vices of civilization and yet capable of receiving its greatest benefits.

This complex change in moral vision was a precondition for anti-slavery movements and for the eventual abolition of New World slavery from 1777, when Vermont's constitution outlawed the institution, to 1888, when in a state of almost revolutionary turmoil, Brazil finally freed its one-half million remaining slaves. The emergence of religious and secular anti-slavery arguments, however, in no way guaranteed such an outcome. If Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and other slaveholding Founders could view human bondage as an embarrassing and even dangerous social evil, they also respected the rights of private property and expressed profound fear of the consequences of any general and unrestricted act of emancipation. The U.S. Constitution was designed to protect the rights and security of slaveholders, and from 1792 to 1845 the American political system encouraged and rewarded the expansion of slavery into nine new states.

As the American slave system became increasingly profitable, the moral doubts of the Revolutionary generation gave way in the South to strong religious, economic, and racial arguments that defended slavery as a "positive good." Historians are still sharply divided over the fundamental reasons and motives for slave emancipation, which ultimately required an imposition of power even in the regions that were spared a Haitian Revolution or an American Civil War. Yet regardless of the final importance of contending interests, it was the inherent contradiction of chattel slavery-the impossible effort to bestialize human beings-that provided substance for a revolution in moral perception, a recognition that slaves could become masters or masters slaves, and that we are therefore not required to resign ourselves to the world that has always been.


Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Finley, Moses I. "Between Slavery and Freedom." Comparative Studies in Society and History 6 (1964): 233-242.

Jacoby, Karl. "Slaves by Nature? Domestic Animals and Human Slaves." Slavery and Abolition 15 (1994): 89-97.

Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Wiedemann, Thomas. Greek and Roman Slavery. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.